[Updated 12/18/2018: This version of the article includes Joe De Sena's post-race interviews with Ryan Atkins, Jon Albon and Janka Pepova]
Obstacle racer Jonathan Albon, who stood to win the largest prize in the sport’s history at the Spartan Ultra World Championship outside of Reykjavik, Iceland failed to take home the cash after forfeiting just over 10 hours into the race, having completed 42.7 miles (6 laps). Canada’s Ryan Atkins took the top spot, logging a record-breaking 82.3 miles.
Darkness, cold temperatures and a brutally technical course across an icy 6.6 mile loop of varying terrain with 25 obstacles brought Albon and more than 500 endurance athletes from 40 countries across the world to breaking point during this second annual 24-hour ultra-endurance championship event.
24 Hours of Pure Spartan Racing
For the second consecutive year the Spartan Ultra World Championship was held in Iceland, outside of the capital of Reykjavik, with some of the best ultra athletes in the world attempting to run 100 miles of the course in 24 hours. In addition to the sharp cold and sheer challenge of a 6-plus mile loop course on technically horrific terrain, racers had another battle to wage: Darkness. With the sun rising at 11:03 am and setting at 3:35pm, the body clocks of the athletes would face the downward effects that lack of daylight has on the human hormone system.
Any racer completing 100 miles of the course within 24 hours would earn $100,000.
The Story Behind the $1 Million Purse
The original inspiration for establishing a $1 million prize bonus (that the United Kingdom's Jon Albon had qualified to take a shot at in Iceland) originated an observation about cheap fast food. Joe De Sena, founder and CEO of Spartan, had a conversation with Spartan elite Faye Stenning before the 2018 Spartan World Championship in Tahoe. Asked how her training and diet were going into the event, Stenning described how often she was eating pizza for dinner--the reason being it was affordable. De Sena consequently made the decision to try and shake up the professional realm of obstacle course racing with a $1 million dollar prize purse—something "big" that could translate to more and better sponsorship for the athletes out to make it as professionals.
The Rules Set for the $1 Million Prize
The rules set for the $1 million dollar prize were simple: Essentially a trifecta of championships. If an athlete was able to win the Tahoe Beast World Championship, the Sparta Greece Trifecta World Championship, and go on to both win the Spartan Ultra Champ event in Iceland while also completing just over 100 miles of the course in 24 hours.
To be able to meet all of these standards would require an athlete capable of winning and racing well both in a range of distances but also different climates.
Coming off his win in Lake Tahoe this past September, Albon took up the chase for the $1 million bonus, winning in Sparta and also qualifying for Iceland. In addition to fatigue and the myriad obstacles he'd face in the ultra, Albon always had his work cut out for him in the competition. Ryan Atkins was determined to both beat Albon and also break the 100-mile mark and win the $100,000 bonus.
The weather complied: Nearly perfect race conditions. "Right after seeing the athletes run the first few laps, I thought the only thing that would stop them would be themselves,” De Sena said as he watched leaders tick off 90-minute laps. "As Jon and Ryan were running in and out of transition and when speaking to their support I got the impression that they were doubting themselves hitting 100 but were almost certain they could hit 90."
$50,000 Bonus Put on the Table
To fire up the race, De Sena calibrated in an additional bonus: $50,000 if one of the athletes completed 90 miles of the course within 24 hours.
“My fear was that as they got tired they would start to waiver and drop before seeing how far they could actually push themselves," De Sena said. "I offered $50,000 for them to break 90 miles. Did Jon want to go for 90 and forgo the million at 100? They would still earn the $100k for in addition so it would be a $150,000 weekend for Jon and it would lower the bar for him to a realistic level if that is where he thought his breaking point was.”
De Sena had made the offer before Albon and Atkins had made the half-way point. But at the 42.7-mile point, Albon dropped out.
"I was shocked to see Jon drop before halfway mark and ran over to convince him to continue," De Sena said. "I tried everything to get him back in the game including increasing the prize money…but he was cooked."
The Czech Republlic’s Radek Paďour placed second in the men’s category, with Iceland’s Sigurjon Ernir Sturluson following closely behind. 2017 Men’s Ultra World Champion winner Joshua Fiore (USA), placed fourth. In the Women’s category, Slovakia’s Janka Pepova placed first after 8 laps and a time of 21:04:14 (55.90 Miles) with 2017 Women’s Ultra World Champion Morgan McKay and Norway’s Anette Sande trailing behind in second and third place, also completing 8 laps.
Joe De Sena Interviews Women's Champ Janka Pepova and Men's Champ Ryan Atkins
Did you think 100 miles was possible?
Ryan Atkins: Coming into the race, I believed that 100 miles was possible and that I would do it.
Janka Pepova: I think it was not possible.
How much 100 mile Iceland specific training did you do?
Atkins: I have been “tweaking” my training towards Iceland all season, but after the OCR World Championships (October 20), the focus really shifted. I put in over 20 days of 6-plus hours of training, whilst making sure I was recovering and progressing. It all came to a point Nov 21 to December 3, when I went to the Adirondacks alone and trained like Rocky Balboa. Big back-to-back-to-back days on repeat. That was tough, but once I recovered from that, I felt pretty solid.
Pepova: I didn’t do any special training before the Iceland Ultra race. Have never run longer race as 8 hours before, that means I missed some experience.
I did not have any suitable (special) training and I didn’t have adaptation to conditions in Iceland.
How did you feel for the first half?
Atkins: First half I felt great. On lap 6 my urine got really dark and I got scared. I slowed a bit and drank 3 liters that lap. I kept waiting for to it to start getting really hard, but I felt solid.
Second half, the 100 mile potential had fully disappeared and I was on cruise control, wondering how hard to push. I just kept the effort constant.
Pepova: The first half of race was quite ok, but in the second half I started to feel bad. I felt like a Zombie. I had problems with my eyes—my visibility—therefore I missed the spear throw six times.
Why do you think Albon dropped?
Atkins: I think Albon didn’t have a lot of intrinsic motivation to do this type of race. He is such a fine-tuned race machine and he gets his kicks from being out in nature, doing big exploratory days. I think he “chased the million” because it was the logical thing to do, and well, how could he not? But his heart wasn’t really in it. Once the 100 miles was gone, he just stopped.
Pepova: Hard to say, this question is better for him. Maybe he didn’t feel very good on this day or it was huge pressure on him regarding the $1 million. Or after some laps he knew that it will be impossible for him to run 100 miles.
Could you have gotten 90 miles done?
Atkins: I definitely had time to do a 13th lap. Physically I could have. That would have been approximately 89 miles. But I was told that “90 miles” was 14 laps. Based on how I was feeling, I just wasn’t able to do that. So I figured, I had won, I had been pushing myself as hard as I could for 20 hours and I was happy with that. There was nothing left to prove to myself.
Pepova: I think it is too much for females. I chose a slower tactic because the route was dangerous, I did not want to hurt myself and for the victory I needed 8 laps.
What would you do different?
Atkins: Nothing. Maybe I would have gone out for the 13th lap?! But maybe I would have injured myself on that last lap and been unable to finish. Who knows. Hindsight is a cruel one!
Pepova: From this race I learned a lot, but what I would do better I will keep in secret for next year. I will come stronger.
Joe De Sena Interviews Jon Albon
What does being wealthy mean to you? It seems like you have nailed your relationship with money and we all can learn from it.
Jon Albon: I have a nice simple lifestyle and am fortunate enough to have enough money to live comfortably. I also don’t seem to want stuff as much as other people and therefore need less money maybe.
It is easy though to have a higher moral stance when you have never gone hungry or been deprived of the necessities in life. Like many people I didn’t grow up rich, but I didn’t go hungry either. As a kid I did have the opportunity to have more stuff but never really wanted it, I hated shopping and if I was to get something I would usually feel guilty afterwards because I knew deep down I didn’t need it and it was likely a waste.
In my everyday lifestyle now I spend more time thinking about how I can be happier and make my wife happier than the next thing we can spend money on. If I do spend out with money it is always for function more than fashion.
At the end of the day I love running because you may have the fanciest equipment going but ultimately you are the engine and it is you that will win the race, not your kit. This is maybe similar to life and it can be good to concentrate on yourself, rather than all the stuff you have.
Did you think the 100 miles was possible?
Albon: Before the race I hoped it would be but knew there would be many variables…some of which couldn’t be controlled.
After the first lap I knew it was impossible.
I completed the first lap in 90 minutes with no obstacles failed. I had to average under 94 minutes per lap in order to succeed. Having experienced the course, with the uneven terrain, heavy carries and knowing night time was coming, the possibility of running a further 14 laps at that opening pace was not going to happen.
Ryan is by far the best 24-hour obstacle racer in the world and with the heavy carries I felt this course suited him more than me. I asked him his thoughts and he said no chance. If I try to think of someone that is as strong, has the technique, endurance, experience and will to push themselves more than Ryan, I can never think of anyone. If Ryan couldn’t get within 15 miles of the 100 it was completely impossible.
The weather was actually the best-case scenario. If you were around to experience the weather on Monday and Tuesday it would be clear that the lap times were mainly down to the course.
I don’t blame anyone for this though. If anything, Spartan has little experience designing 24-hour courses that result in the possibility of 100 miles.
Some simple tweaks would have made the 100 far more doable though:
-Utilizing more of the gravel trails rather than having 90% of the running off trail. Running in the super uneven soft grass and rocks covered in moss resulted in the same effort as running above a 5% uphill grade. In a 24 hour race you end up walking up this grade, most of the flat running therefore resulted in the feeling that you should be walking.
-Having a different obstacle completion proof system. To have your passport stamped after 6 of the obstacles and get a new passport at the end of every lap wasted between 1 and 2 minutes per lap. Over 15 laps this results in up to 30 minutes of wasted time (what should be a third of a lap)
-Having the usual carry distance to race course distance ratio. Never have a I experienced a super course length with so many and so long carries. It actually felt like the carries were longer than in the WC beast…How can it be that the course for 24hours is harder than for normal races. The usual obstacles on the other hand were made easier. The rig was just rings and the twister was only two sections. Why then were the carries so excessive.
-Less distance to run into the pit. To get into the pit was an extra 300m total with the negotiation of an extra obstacle and a spinning door. All I did in the pit was drop my bag and pick up another one. If I could have done this outside I could have saved a minute or two per lap.
-Not start a bunch of sprint racers in the middle of our race. The mountain was completely choked up and I wasted a lot of energy fighting my way around. This had a massive knock on effect.
If you had maintained your 100 mile pace for 70 miles but then started to slip do you think the prize could have helped you push harder?
Albon: The reason I was at the race was because of the money, so yes. I have never really enjoyed 24 hour obstacles racing and have always needed an incentive to destroy my body in such a way.
Do you regret dropping?
Albon: No, I decided weeks before that to screw up my body was worth a million dollars, not less. Once I knew the 100 was impossible I got incredibly happy because I knew I would stop early and I didn’t have to hurt myself. In most of the pictures I look very happy were as Ryan looks very serious and hurting. This is because he knows he is in for the long run but without my motivator I was simply going to stop when the running was no longer fun.
I would have regretted dropping so early if there had been northern lights but they never came and the forecast was that they wouldn’t. I wanted to run under them.
I was there not for the course, not to find my limits, not to win. I was there to see if I could win a million dollars. So when I couldn’t, why continue unless it is fun to do so, after 6 laps it wasn’t as fun anymore.
If I had a different reason to be racing and I dropped I would have been disappointed.
If we tweak the purse for next year and future years to something like the below do you think that is better?
- 1.0 million in prize money for 3 race series.
- First first and 100 miles = a 98 score (subtracting 2 from 100)
- Second Second and 100 miles = a 96 score.
- We pay any combination down to 90
- If two people land on the same number they split it
- Women 80 miles = 100 miles (rough numbers)
- 200k is available from 90-98 and 800k is available at 98
Albon: Sounds very confusing and no doubt gets screwed up by the ‘need to finish a full lap rule.’ This means that from 100 down to 92 would likely need to run 100.
The only way having mileage goals will work is if the course is made easier. I don’t see this as a ‘4 minute’ mile scenario. There are a billion variables involved here and half of them (the weather ones) were in our favor, and Ryan still didn’t get with in 15%.
If you had to do it differently what would you have done?
Albon: In regards to the approach to the race, nothing.
I didn’t change anything about my season, I just added on the races I needed to chance the million. If I dropped everything and concentrated on the million I would likely be regretting it now.
If we look at Hunter or Hobie or any other athlete do you think they could have done it from any sport?
Albon: Ryan is special, and he is the only one on the planet with the skills to get close. The 100 and 25 grand motivated him to push to his limits and he didn’t get close. There are for sure other great athletes on the planet but most of them are very specific athletes, they would lack the endurance, or the skill, or the strength or the fueling strategy or just the will to endure the suck. Ryan is the full package.
Albon: No. If Ryan had done the 100 I would have regretted beating him by 12 seconds in Tahoe…
|MEN’S ELITE||MIL/KM||TIME||WOMEN’S ELITE||MIL/KM||TIME|
|1. Ryan Atkins (CAN)||82.30/132.45||21:36:23||1. Janka Pepova (SVK)||55.90/89.69||21:04:14|
|2. Radek Paďour (CZE)||75.70/121.83||21:55:14||2. Morgan McKay (CAN)||55.90/89.69||22:03:18|
|3. Sigurjon Ernir Sturluson (ISL)||69.10/111.21||21.19.11||3. Anette Sande (NOR)||55.90/89.69||23:27:10|
|4. Joshua Fiore (USA)||69.10/111.21||21:53.25||4. Ina Kovalenko (UKR)||49.30/79.34||21:05:08|
|5. Glenn Racz (USA)||62.50/100.58||21:14:50||5. Katrin Sigrun Tomasdottir (ISL)||49.30/79.34||21:24:00|